How Searchlight has sold one of this year’s buzziest dramas.
(Note: This was originally published on 11/30/20, which was the release date most widely cited. It has since come out that Searchlight is giving the film a coordinated theatrical/Hulu release on 2/19/21, preceded by a limited IMAX distribution schedule, so the piece below has been updated as such.)
Frances McDormand stars as Fern in Nomadland, the new movie from writer/director Chloé Zhao. The movie, based on the book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, follows Fern in the wake of losing everything in the 2008 financial collapse. With nothing holding her down or back, Fern begins living out of her van, becoming one of the many nomads driving across the country engaging in piecemeal work and forming a supportive community of their own.
The story, while set a decade or more in the past, is still unfortunately timely. PBS Newshour recently reported on the older Americans who have done something similar because of the coronavirus pandemic. So this is still relevant, because capitalism still throws out the most vulnerable first.
Searchlight’s campaign has been relatively minor, relying mostly on the buzz the film built up at festival screenings. Those positive reviews have earned the film an exemplary 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Set against an all-white background, the first poster (released in mid-August) features the movie’s title spelled out in segments of different state license plates, a nice way to communicate the wandering nature of the story and its characters. Aside from that there isn’t much information, just McDormand and Zhao’s names along with the credentials of the festivals the movie screened at.
A motion poster came out in mid-January
A teaser trailer (2.9 million views on YouTube) was released in early September just before its festival screenings. It doesn’t show much, just Frances walking through a camp on an evening walk, the trailers and tents of others in the background.
The second trailer (2.7 million views on YouTube), which came out in mid-December, does a much more complete job of introducing Fern and her situation, which includes living out of her van and traveling across the country. She takes what local work she can get, helps others like her and makes do. It’s a restless life, but one she enjoys and is rewarded by, so there’s little room for others to complain about her choices. Most of all, this is presented as a great showcase for McDormand.
Another trailer came out in February that hit many of the same story notes.
Online and Social
Not much beyond the basic marketing information on Searchlight’s page for the film, nor on the social profiles the studio setup, which has primarily been focused on touting the festival awards the movie has earned. More promotions and other updates were shared on the movie’s Twitter profile and other social media sites.
Advertising and Promotions
Fox Searchlight acquired the movie after it debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
In July 2020, dual announcements came out with the news it would screen at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals, winning the Golden Lion at the former and the People’s Choice Award for McDormand at the latter. It was also scheduled for the Telluride, with Zhao receiving a Silver Medallion Award at the latter, and New York film festivals, all of which resulted in a wave of positive word of mouth and buzz about awards potential, especially for McDormand. It also was slated to open the Montclair Film Festival and screen at the Middleburg Film Festival.
Searchlight released a short featurette showing some of the highlights of the Telluride drive-in screening, held at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and with McDormand and Zhao in attendance. In early October the movie was named as the opening feature for the Denver Film Festival. At the Montclair Film Festival the movie won the audience award for a feature film.
MoMA announced the film would serve as the closing feature at this year’s virtual contenders showcase.
Media and Press
In advance of those festival screenings, a profile of Zhao about how she approached this project as well as what else she had coming up. Another interview with the director later on covered her filmmaking techniques and how she has a tendency to leap before she looks.
There was finally an interview with Strathairn, who didn’t make it into much of the marketing.
THR had a substantial feature on how McDormand and Zhao collaborated on the story and worked to create a sense of authenticity about the culture being portrayed.
Throughout the life of the discourse around the movie it’s remained conventional wisdom that it would be among those seriously competing for Oscar and other award consideration when that season rolls around early next year. Searchlight has steadfastly stuck with a fall theatrical release for precisely this reason, despite so many other films being delayed or going to PVOD/streaming.
What’s surprising then is that the studio didn’t make a bigger deal of this week’s theatrical debut for the movie. There’s just the one teaser trailer that doesn’t offer much in terms of the story or characters, and the single poster isn’t much more informative. With a star like McDormand and Searchlight trying to follow the established book as closely as possible, a bigger campaign would have been expected, even if it was narrowly targeted at the film festival crowd and their ilk.